Women in The Silence of the Lambs

This last week has resulted in me re-watching The Silence of the Lambs not once, but twice. I also saw a comment made that has prompted a lot of discussion amongst those who watch Hannibal and have seen The Silence of the Lambs, which states that Clarice Starling, the main character and awesome FBI-agent from TSOTL, is a ‘generic female character’.

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The double viewing and, frankly, strange comment started me thinking on a topic that is discussed quite often with regards to this film, and that is how women are portrayed in TSOTL.

Warning: Spoilers ahead, as well as some generalisations. I want to make clear now that I don’t think all men are evil, nor do I think all women’s experiences are the same; I am making generalisations. Please don’t hit me with really mean comments.

Like Alien, TSOTL is often used as an example of a film that has a strong leading female character. However, I think TSOTL is actually a better portrayal of how women live day-to-day. Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, and the characteristics of that role, arguably could have played a man or a woman. I like that as there are many situations where there are no differences between men and women, but Clarice Starling could only have been played by a woman, not because of what she does, but because of how others treat her.

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I will start by claiming that every time I watch TSOTL I dislike Jack Crawford a little more (which conflicts with how much I like the character in Hannibal, but I digress), because upon each viewing I notice new ways in which he underestimates Starling. When he first sends Starling to see Hannibal Lecter he doesn’t tell her his true objective of trying to get Lecter to help with the investigation, later justifying this by claiming that had she known the real purpose, Lecter would have guessed straight away. The problem here is that, firstly, he assumes that Starling would be unable to trick Lecter, that he would see right through her. Secondly, Starling already guessed. He underestimated her ability to, you know, think. When Miggs dies, Crawford says that Hannibal got him to commit suicide for his own amusement, that Lecter couldn’t have been punishing Miggs for his “rudeness” towards Starling. Towards the end of the film Crawford says he won’t forget her help and then hangs up straight away. He undermines Starling too, when he tells a Sheriff of the small town that there are matters that shouldn’t be discussed in front of a woman. It might not be that she is a woman, of course, that causes him to do these things: she isn’t a full agent when he sends her to meet Hannibal, so he may have a right to be wary of what she can do. We don’t know if Starling mentioned in her report about Hannibal’s threat on Miggs. And he might have just been busy on the plane as they were heading to the suspects house. However, his utilisation of Starling being a woman to get the trust of the police makes me wary about his motivations. Yes, he did win their trust, but it didn’t seem to bother him that she was made to look inferior just so he could.

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Other men treat Starling differently because she’s a woman. Surrounded by police in the funeral parlour after being left out of the conversation ‘unsuitable’ for women, there is an officer leering at her. She goes to get the insect checked out and is asked on a date. When she visits Lecter, Dr. Chilton hits on her (in the creepiest way. Gah, I hate him). Were she a man it is unlikely that the constant sexual attention would be so obvious, or that it would be so common. It is also an accurate portrayal: how many women could say they have never had someone staring at them in a creepy, sexual way that has made them uncomfortable.

Roger Ebert says of Clarice that she has “less self-confidence than she pretends”. As much as I don’t want to disagree with an industry great and someone so well respected, and whom I respect, I actually believe it is the opposite. There are moments with Hannibal Lecter where we see her confidence as she becomes comfortable with him, and with her friend Ardelia. Starling in fact has self-confidence, but hides it in order to appear unassuming and non-threatening. The film also demonstrates how women can use their gender to strengthen their position. After having Dr. Chilton walk her down to Lecter’s cell, to try and calm his anger at being asked not to go in, she flirts with him: “I would have been deprived the pleasure of your company Doctor”. When The Dark Knight Rises was released I remember reading some comments that Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman was essentially a bad person for screaming and pretending to be scared when she wasn’t in order to avert suspicion from herself. I don’t think this manipulation makes her a bad person necessarily; she just knows how most men think and is playing up to assumptions about women in order to get away. Starling manipulates men’s assumptions too, so do many women, and it is refreshing to see that on screen as it is not often shown.

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Finally, I would be wrong to talk about TSOTL and women, and not mention the victims of Buffalo Bill. All are women, all kidnapped and killed (bar one). The film demonstrates, maybe, the weak and vulnerable position of women – maybe a man would have been able to fight back in the van, unlike Catherine. However, even these women aren’t demonstrated as purely weak, and they are more than simply plot devices. The victims try to climb the wall, tearing off fingernails. Catherine tries to orchestrate an escape by kidnapping Bill’s dog, quite impressive when all you have to work with is a rope, a bucket and a bone. Even more impressive when you’re stuck down a hole. Bill is also drawn to his crimes because he “covets” the first victim and her sewing. Catherine’s mother, the senator, is not weak. She is strong and works hard to try and free her child, ignoring comments from Lecter about her breastfeeding. The film doesn’t even allow its victims to be worthless.

I don’t believe any of this is coincidental. I think the director, Jonathan Demme, wanted to show what it is like to be a woman as a part of the story. I think he wanted to make Jack Crawford a bit unlikeable. In his 1991 review of the film Ebert says that “rarely in a movie have I been made more aware of the subtle sexual pressures men put upon women with their eyes”. I would agree and I appreciate this about TSOTL. Alien does not have these pressures, and in that film they are not needed as Ripley is an equal to the rest of the crew. The makers of TSOTL could have decided not put in these touches as well, but it would have been a lesser film as a result. The film’s main character is a woman. It is nice to actually see some of the every day things that actually happen to women appear on screen.

Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments.

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